It is now fruit picking season and Creston is again host to many young seasonal workers. Their presence is vital to the fruit industry in the valley and the growers freely admit that they could not get their crop harvested without their help.
To many people in the valley, however, the “pickers”, as they are known, are an unwelcome nuisance. On any given day, people will tell you they are responsible for petty thefts in the area, drunken parties, inappropriate behaviour in public places and more.
Barb Wloka, who has hired pickers for her and her husband Frank’s farm operation for many years, wants to set the record straight.
“Like any segment of society, there are good pickers and bad pickers,” Wloka said. “We don’t hire the bad ones back the next year, but I am proud to say many of my workers have come back year after year.”
She points out that she is always pleased to hire local when she can but as she alone hires a crew of about 40 for one month each summer, there simply are not enough local people available to do the job.
Wloka also works hard to make sure her good pickers want to come back the next year.
“A picker usually takes several years to learn how to pick both quickly and cleanly.” she said. “It is crucial that we are able to pick our cherries as soon as they are ready so a fast picker is really an asset.”
To keep her pickers happy, she has built up a picker’s camp on their home block. Although the pickers must supply their own tents, they have a kitchen area with sinks, stove, fridge and covered eating area, plus bathrooms with showers and several washers and dryers.
For recreation, Wloka has a volleyball court, a games room and access to computers and the Internet. Wloka has planted trees to provide shade for the tents and puts in a herb garden every year for her workers.
“They are often much better cooks that I am,” she said with a laugh, “and are very health conscious and like to eat organically grown food whenever possible. They also insist on composting any organic wastes and ask that I supply recycling containers.”
She also makes a clothesline available so the pickers can hang out their clothes rather than use energy to dry them. It is well used every year.
Pickers start work as soon as it is light enough to see the cherries and, on a normal day, work until about noon. Afternoons are spent doing housekeeping chores, shopping for food and resting up for the next day. Wloka supplies bikes for her pickers to help them get into town to shop since most do not have vehicles.
Although Wloka has a fire pit for her pickers, it often can’t be used because of fire bans. But even a nice fire in the evening doesn’t keep her pickers up late.
“By nine most are in bed asleep,” she said. “They know my wake up call is going to come early the next day.”
Wloka has found over the years that most of her pickers are university students.
“They are working to save money for their education and a bad harvest is just as much a disaster for them as it is for us,” she said.
Wloka has had musicians, budding scientists, chefs, doctors, dentists, teachers and counselors working in her orchard. The younger ones are usually working on their undergrad degree but some of her returning pickers have moved on to work on their masters or their PhD.
“We also get young people who have travelled all over the world, either with their families or on their own,” Wloka said. “I have always believed travel is an education in itself and I am so happy so many of my workers are able to visit other countries.”
Since many of Wloka’s pickers have a first language other than English, Wloka tries to post all safety signs in English, French and Spanish.
“Besides the safety factor — since in an emergency people respond faster if the sign is in their own language — it makes my workers feel a little bit more at home,” Wloka said.
And in some ways it does become their home.
“They are just like family,” said Wloka’s husband, Frank.
Wloka hopes people in Creston also welcome these vital workers. “Remember, some of these young people are just out of high school and sometimes away from home for the first time,” she said. “A smile and a friendly greeting will show that you value their contribution to this community and want them to come back.”
— ANNE JACKSON